60 Days of a Midnight Special
(Disclaimer: This is my personal bike I purchased from my local bike shop. Since it’s a “fat road” bike I offered to write up my take on it for fat-bike.com. I changed some of the parts to suit my needs but it’s not far off from original. Here are my experiences so far with the newest pavement rig. )
When Surly debuted the replacement to their traditional road bike, the Pacer, at Frostbike back in February, it reminded me of a 4×4 Camaro- something trying to look sporty but is made to be rough and dirty. People were thinking “What the…?” A road bike with clearance for MTB tires, sort of thru-axles, big headtube, plenty of braze ons but still pretty roadish geo. Would you expect anything less from the kooks in Minneapolis?
Critics and number crunchers were quick to write it off as too fat for road or too steep for gravel. It’s definitely a genre-blurring bike. Surly says it’s a road bike but it comes with 650b x 47c “Road+” tires. It’s not a touring bike but has enough eyelets to mount racks and fenders. So how does it ride and what’s it actually capable of? That’s what I wanted to find out.
From my perspective, I’d been riding a single speed Cross Check the past five years. Looking to move onto a disc brake bike and possibly some gears, I got wind Surly might have some new models on the verge. When the Midnight Special came out I did a little research before buying on impulse. Surprisingly, looking at the geometry the rear center of the bike is nearly identical to a Cross Check. The steering geometry is the biggest difference. 1° steeper head angle, less rake and a thankfully longer headtube didn’t seem like much to adjust to. The other aspect was the component spec. SRAM Rival 22 drivetrain and TRP Spyre brakes are nice but the clincher was the WTB Horizon Road plus tires. Road+ has been out for a couple years but I was really motivated to try a bike that was designed with this platform in mind. So I justified the purchase.
Upon receiving the bike, the only real change I made was converting the Rival 22 drivetrain to 1x. This required purchasing a Rival 1 rear derailleur, 1x chaining for the stock S390 crank and removing the shift mechanism from the left hood. So far this has worked out well. For the riding I do, the 44t chainring keeps me in the meat of the 11-32 cassette a majority of the time. Only using the extreme ends at extreme times. I have also mounted front and rear racks for commuting and short trips with ease.
Getting it on the road! My initial rides were on my daily commute to work. As predicted the handling isn’t far off from being a quicker handling Cross Check. The gracious head tube is appreciated as you can run a sane amount headset spacers to get the bars in a comfy position. For longer rides, the higher front end and sensible rear (425mm chainstays) made long rides on rustic roads or crushed gravel more delightful. And you can’t count out those fat tires in assisting…
Road plus, how is it? I’ll be up front, on smooth pavement it doesn’t feel faster. Despite the hype, you can’t get around the physics of rolling resistance that comes from having a smaller wheel and larger contact patch. Show up to a group ride with these wheels and your legs will hit the burn a lot sooner(maybe you’re into that). BUT, point this bike down a bad road or some gravel with the tires in the 35-40psi range and let the fun begin! Those fat 47s soak up everything and inspire you to let the bike rip. On pavement, you can take advantage of the quick geometry and corner as hard as you like with so much rubber on the ground. Likewise, the volume of the tires help mute the vibrations and hits a 73° head angle would normally throw at you. Is it a true gravel bike? No, but it’s not afraid to try.
How ‘bout them barnacles? The original Pacers lighter tubes were limited to fender mounts and bottle cages for accessory braze ons. Adding discs changes that scenario as tubes have to be beefed up for braking stresses in more leveraged places. So why not add some braze ons? Some folks have complained about the unicrown forks aesthetic, and yes we’re accustomed to Surly’s road line having nice lugged crowns, but their mountain bikes have had unicrown forks since day one and we’ve gotten along. Their 8 Pack rack mounts nicely to the Midnight Specials fork and carries my lunch and an extra shirt to work daily with ease. I’ve actually carried up to 15lbs on the front of the bike and while it required more attention it never felt overly nervous. On several occasions, I’ve added a rear rack and panniers for weekend trips. You’ll get some flex from the lighter (for Surly) main tubes when out of the saddle but the ride was surprisingly balanced and predictable for a loaded road bike. So is it a touring bike? Not really, but don’t skip a weekend getaway if it’s all you got.
So where does the Midnight Special fit? At its core, it is a modern take on the Pacer. Swap in some 700c road wheels and a carbon fork and it could be a very capable road bike.
Like most Surly’s, versatility is built into the primary function of the design and in the ideal (of versatility) is where the Midnight Special succeeds its predecessor. Simply put, the Midnight Special is a road bike, but a road bike that can do more.
If you want nitty gritty details head over to surlybikes.com. -Ron